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Like commuting? Workers’ perceptions of their daily commute
by Martin Turcotte
For many people who work in a large urban area and have to cope with traffic congestion on a daily basis, commuting between home and work is far from a pleasant experience. It is no more appealing for those who have to stand crammed onto crowded buses for long journeys. In fact, it is generally assumed that for most workers, commuting is at best a necessary evil, at worst, a daily nightmare. But is that really the case?
The question bears asking since these assumptions are often based on anecdotes, sensational stories of “extreme commuters” or just our general impressions. This is understandable given that very few data were collected in the past to measure how much workers like (or dislike) commuting to work. The present study is intended to fill that information gap.
Specifically, it attempts to determine, using the latest data from the 2005 General Social Survey on time use, whether commuting is in fact an unpleasant experience for most workers. The main factors associated with a more or less pleasant commute are identified, focusing in particular on the mode of transportation used.
This article presents only information for “commuting workers”, that is, people who made a round trip between their home and their place of work the day before the General Social Survey telephone interview. For convenience, they will simply be referred to as “workers”.
A thousand good reasons to dislike commuting
According to the latest time use data, Canadian workers are spending more time travelling to and from work: 63 minutes in 2005 (or almost 12 full days for someone who works full time), compared with 54 minutes in 1992.1 Increases in commuting times were observed for both drivers and public transportation users in almost every part of Canada. In the larger cities, particularly those experiencing rapid population growth such as Calgary, the increases were even larger. The overall conclusion from this study is that more and more workers are spending more and more time travelling to and from work.
It might be expected that dissatisfaction levels would be quite high and that most workers would regard commuting to work as a very unpleasant activity. And yet …
Respondents to the 2005 General Social Survey (GSS) were asked to rate a set of activities (including “commuting to and from work”) using a scale from “1” to “5” where “1” meant they disliked the activity a great deal and “5” meant they enjoyed it a great deal.
In total, 12% of all workers who had travelled between home and work the previous day rated commuting as a “1”, indicating that they disliked it a great deal, while another 18% gave it a “2”, indicating that they disliked the activity but not a great deal. Despite all this, the percentage of workers who were negative about commuting to and from work (30%) was lower than the proportion of workers who said they liked it (38%). One out of six workers (16%) even said that they liked commuting a great deal.
These findings raise the question of whether commuting workers are people who are “positive” by nature and enjoy a wide variety of activities, including commuting to work. The 2005 Time Use Survey also collected information about respondents’ views on a number of daily activities. That information indicates that for the majority of workers, commuting is not the most unpleasant activity in their lives. The proportion of workers who did not like cleaning the house, grocery shopping or other kinds of shopping was higher than the proportion of workers who did not like commuting to and from work.
A recent study in the United States also found that the proportion of workers who liked commuting was relatively high, or at least higher than the researchers had expected.2 In that survey, 40% of workers reported that commuting between home and work was a transition that they found “useful”. According to the authors, this somewhat unexpected result is attributable in part to the fact that for many workers, the time they spend commuting is one of the only times in the day they have to themselves. During their commute, workers have the opportunity to think about personal matters, listen to their favourite music, read a book if they take public transportation, talk on the phone, and so on.
Nevertheless, it is probably best not to exaggerate the significance of these findings; a larger proportion of workers like any number of activities (such as paid work and cooking) more than commuting.
While the data show that workers on the whole have a relatively positive attitude toward commuting, they conceal some important differences based on the mode of transportation, age group, place of residence, and so on. The various characteristics associated with a more positive or less positive opinion of commuting are presented in Table A.1.
This table shows that users of public transport are less likely to enjoy commuting than drivers. In 2005, only 23% of people who travelled between home and work on mass transit said they liked commuting, compared with 39% of drivers.
However, younger workers, those who live in large cities and those who spend more time traveling to and from work are less likely to enjoy commuting, all of which are characteristics typical of public transit riders. Public transport users are generally younger and much more likely to live in larger cities, spending a significantly longer time on commuting.3
This complex situation, in which a number of factors appear to interact with one another, raises the question of whether mass transit users are less likely to enjoy commuting because they also have other characteristics associated with a negative opinion; or because taking public transport is, regardless of these other factors, associated with a lower probability of liking the daily commute. To answer this question, a statistical analysis that takes all these characteristics into account simultaneously is needed. (See “What you should know about this study”.)
The results for Model 1 show that the predicted probability that public transit users will like commuting is lower than the probability for drivers, even when the other factors are kept constant. Specifically, the predicted probability that a public transport user will like commuting is 28%, compared with 38% for a car driver.
However, Model 1 does not include the duration of the commute. A recent American study4 indicates that trip duration is the factor that most influences the stress of commuters using a suburban train (the longer the commute, the greater the stress). What happens if time is kept constant, that is, if drivers and public transit riders with the same commute times are compared?
As was found in the American study of travel time and stress, adding the time factor in Model 2 (commute duration) eliminates the difference between drivers and public transportation users in their attitudes toward commuting. When commute duration and all the other factors included in the analysis are kept constant, there is no statistically significant difference in liking and disliking the daily commute between users of public transport and drivers.
Hence, the results of the present study suggest that if the average travel time of public transport users was equal to that of car drivers (which it is not), their attitudes toward commuting could be similar (in contrast to the results shown in Table A.1 when the various factors that differentiate drivers from public transit users are not taken into account).
For workers who used both the automobile and public transportation to commute, the inclusion of travel time did not, however, eliminate the significant statistical correlation observed. It would seem that, of all commuters, they are the ones for whom commuting is most unpleasant. The fact that the majority of them have to transfer, and therefore endure additional waits or the frustration of having missed a connection, may account for this persistent difference.
Very few workers travel to work by bicycle. According to 2001 Census data, about 1% of commuters rode a bicycle to work (the largest proportion was 4.9% in Victoria, British Columbia). Cyclists differ from other workers not only because of their small numbers, but also because they are much more likely to enjoy commuting to work. The predicted probability that a worker commuting to work by bicycle would like the activity was 59%, compared with only 37% for people who used their cars to get to work (Model 2). Workers who walked to work were also more likely to enjoy commuting, with a predicted probability of 46%.
Not surprisingly, duration is one of the factors that has the greatest impact on the probability of liking or disliking the commute to work. For commuters who spent two hours or more a day travelling between home and work, the predicted probability that they would like doing so was just 23%. In contrast, it was 46% for those whose commute time was less than 30 minutes.
Commute duration does not explain everything, though. Even when the effect of travel time is kept constant, the farther a worker lives from his place of work, the lower the probability that he will like commuting. Although some people are obliged to travel long distances to get to work, many others have chosen to live a considerable distance from work in order to have, for example, more space at a better price.5 Although the location of their home stems from a deliberate choice, it does not alter the fact that those who take longer and travel greater distances to get to work are those who like commuting the least.
In general, the residents of larger cities have to allow more time for commuting than do people who live in smaller centres. However, even when commute time is kept constant (along with the other factors included in the analysis), workers who live in larger cities remain less likely to enjoy commuting than workers who reside in smaller centres. For example, the predicted probability that residents of the census metropolitan area (CMA) of Calgary would not like commuting was 34%, compared with just 19% for workers living outside the urban area.
Some studies have shown that travel time has an even more negative effect for individuals when they have to commute on heavily congested roads.6 In other words, 30 minutes of driving on a relatively uncongested road would cause significantly less dissatisfaction than 30 minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The effects are even more negative when gridlock is unexpected.
In general, the larger a city is, the heavier the traffic.7 As a result, workers in larger cities have a greater chance than others of commuting under more stressful conditions. This makes it easier to understand why workers who live in larger urban areas are less likely than other workers, given equal commuting distance and duration, to enjoy commuting.
One correlation that catches attention exists between liking one’s job and the probability of liking commuting. According to the statistical model, the predicted probability that a worker who likes his paid work a great deal would also like travelling to work was 64%, compared with only 10% for a worker who disliked her paid work a great deal. To our knowledge, this correlation, which is one of the strongest presented in this study, has not been seen in any previous studies. This finding indicates that when a worker likes her job, she will more likely be anxious to get to work and may also be more likely to put up with some of the unpleasant aspects of commuting, such as road congestion.
Among the other characteristics associated with attitude to commuting are age and level of education (but not gender). On average, younger workers tend to like commuting less. This correlation between age and attitude to commuting may be due to generational differences between baby-boomers and their children. Another possibility is that younger workers tend to like commuting less because it takes up too much of the time they might otherwise spend with their family and friends.8
There is also a slight difference based on workers’ level of education. Workers who have a higher level of education are a little less likely to enjoy commuting than workers with less education. However, it is difficult to explain why this is so.
One of the important goals of urban transportation policies, common to the majority of developed countries, is to encourage greater use of public or “sustainable” modes of transportation and reduce dependence on the automobile, especially for solo commuting.9 In this context, it makes sense to compare the public transit users’ attitudes to commuting with car drivers’ attitudes.
The results of this study show that in general, car drivers are more likely than mass transit riders to like travelling to and from work. However, the attitude difference between the two groups disappears when the fact that public transportation users have to spend more time commuting between home and work is taken into account; in other words, for equal commute times, drivers and public transport users are equally likely to enjoy commuting.
These results suggest that should commuting times of public transit riders be similar to those of drivers (i.e. shorter), drivers could be more attracted to public transportation. However, other factors affect the choice between public transport and the automobile. Among others, the comfort associated with each mode; access to subsidized parking at the workplace; cost differences; and easy access to public transit near one’s residence.
In conclusion, the workers who are most likely to enjoy commuting are those who bicycle to work. There are only a few brave ones in the winter, but in the summer, they are probably the ones who best live up to the old saying about combining business with pleasure.
Martin Turcotte is an analyst with Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division, Statistics Canada.
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